Where am I? Ethel wondered when she woke.
The 72-year-old was cold and stiff from sleeping on the desert slickrock. For a moment she felt like she couldn't sit up. Her neck hurt to move. Even her eyes – crusted from the powdery dust of the land – struggled to open. At least her hair was short enough that she didn't have to deal with it getting in the way. She laid on her travel pillow and curled up tighter in the fleece blanket she'd grabbed from her broken Oldsmobile the night before. The sun was just coming over the horizon of hoodoos that spined the ridges like dinosaur backs. From her shady alcove, Ethel watched the yellow rays creep over the silent land like spider legs under the open sky. Their warmth was welcome for now. In just a few hours, though, the landscape would become a blazing hell. Ethel remembered how hot it was driving through the area yesterday. The dash had been too hot to touch in spite of the air conditioning blasting through the vents. Then she remembered the BANG under the hood and coasting to a stop on the shoulder of the road.
Shit. It wasn't a dream, she thought, rolling onto her back.
She stared at the underside of the boulder above her and groped for her glasses. She put them on and sat up, getting her wits about her. The night had been a beautiful respite from the concerns she had in the outside world, but now it was time to deal with reality. Her car was broken and she had to figure out what to do. She took a long drink from her canteen and picked up her cigarettes, wishing she had coffee to go with the tobacco smoke that curled into the still air. Something to look forward to when I get out of here, she thought.
She didn't think it was going to take that long. There wasn't much traffic on the old road, but someone would be along if she couldn't fix the car herself. Thinking of that, she snuffed the butt on the rock and crawled out of her little nook. It was time to assess the engine problem, before the heat came on.
Getting in and out of the alcove involved a narrow, sloping passage on loose talus just above the edge of the dry box canyon. Flat stones slid down the soft soil at Ethel's feet and clattered over the cliff in a cascade of echoes. Once on top of the slope in view of the car, she pulled out her cigarettes and lit another one. She'd been trying to cut back, but on days like this – and there were many of them lately – it was all she could do to keep going. In the big picture, a few extra cigs were worth the sanity they brought to her nerves as she faced the world alone. She followed her previous sets of boot prints back to the car and popped the hood. The radiator hose was blown. She stared at it and took a long drag. It surprised her how little she cared. After that winning lotto ticket and the strange problems it brought into her life, she felt like she cared a lot less about a whole lot.
She left the hood up and walked around to ice chest for some breakfast. She looked for something that might serve as a temporary patch for the radiator hose, too, but she couldn't even scrounge up a roll of duct tape. Damn.
She ate a banana and a slice of bread with peanut butter in the shade of the back seat. It was getting warm. Fast. So far there had been no traffic. It was Tuesday. She got the feeling she might die of heat stroke if she waited endlessly on the side of the rotting pavement. In the age of interstates, this route was off the map. Now she was as glad as ever to have found the protected alcove in the rocks. She also wondered if she should've tried to flag down the lone semi truck that blew by just as her car died the previous evening.
"No sense bemoaning the past, right, Hal?" She spoke to the urn of her husband's ashes sitting next to her. She was glad she brought him. It was nice having an excuse to speak out loud instead of getting lost in her head.
Ethel finished breakfast and packed up more food and water into a backpack so she could wait for help from the shade of the alcove. The view was better there, anyway.
Her feet started to feel sweaty and blistery in her leather ranch boots as she picked her way down through the towering clumps of cactus for the fifth time. Just 12 hours before, she was taken aback by the unusual flora. She had seen plenty of cacti around her Wyoming homestead, but never any so tall. Now she was almost used to them.
She was actually enjoying herself. The destination was Las Vegas when she left the house, but this experience felt more natural. I can handle places like this OK, she thought, stopping to reach for a cigarette now that she was far enough down the hill to have some shade again. She liked looking into the labyrinth of canyons yawning in all directions below.
"Beautiful. I could die here peacefully," she said, thinking of Hal in the back seat. She was enjoying the fact that her lotto ticket weighed on her mind less and less. Life felt more natural here. Her spirit lifted, she took greater strides down the talus slope, lifting the lighter to the cigarette. Funny how cocky I feel now, of all places, she thought, just as a boulder rolled out from under her foot.
The landscape spun out so fast, she couldn't remember exactly how it happened. The main memory that blocked out everything else was losing control of her forward momentum and somersaulting over the edge of a short cliff with debris raining around her. She landed on another steep, loose slope below the cliff and tumbled some more until slamming into a jumble of boulders at the bottom of a ravine.
I'm alive! I'm alive! was her first thought. Then, Shit! My leg is stuck.
She looked down and saw her right foot was wedged in debris that had settled around her. She sensed her foot was cocked at a funny angle. Then she felt the shooting pain.
"WAHHHHH!" She cried. Tears collected in the bottom of her dusty glasses and ran down her weathered cheeks. Suddenly she felt like the 7-year-old girl who fell from the loft in daddy's barn and broke her arm when she wasn't supposed to be there.
She was lucky for the shade in the bottom of the canyon. If the sun had been beating down her neck, she might not have mustered the strength to dig her leg out.
"WAHHHH!" She wailed again, seeing how badly her ankle was broken. There was no way to weight the foot. Blood dripped down her shin into the frothy dirt, but she didn't have any serious cuts.
Get yourself together, she scolded herself. It could be worse.
She looked around. Where could she hobble to before the sun baked her like an insect in a light fixture? Going back up was not an option for now. The rock band 100 yards above was only about 12 feet high, but its walls were sheer to overhanging. For now, the only hope for salvation was to go deeper into the canyon.
Ethel followed the dry ravine on her hands and knees, standing on her good leg here and there to get around some boulders or a thicket of prickly plants. Reaching the confluence with the barren creek bed below seemed to take forever. She thought of her children and grandchildren, remembering the last time she spoke to them on the phone. How badly she wanted to undo those moments before she left the house and tell them, tell anyone, where she was planning to go. Then she thought of Hal waiting patiently in the backseat. Eventually, all thoughts swirled into one repetitive chorus that allowed her mind to detach from the physical pain.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The thought spiraled through her mind as she inched along.